The Sacredness of the Ordinary

A colleague recently asked me to explain why I claim that Feminism lies at the heart of the re-emergence of theism and spirituality in Unitarian Universalism. That wakened my slumbering inner-philosopher, because the path begins in Descartes and winds through 19the century positivism and into 20th century Humanism before we can get to Feminism. Now, I’ve been out of the philosophy game since 1976, so I’m sure there are Feminist philosophers and theologians who can explain this better than I, but this is what I think.

It begins with the Cogito: I think, therefore I am. It seems to imply that the foundation of our being is our mind, and the body simply accompanies it, not unlike its shadow. When this metaphysics turns to theology, there seems no room, then, for an immanent God, which leaves us with either a non-theist theology or a totally transcendent God. The 17th century being what it was, most thinkers opted for the second horn, and Deism was born.

But things changed, as things will, and by the 19th century, Deism was getting rather old hat. By the middle and late 19th century, Positivists like Ernst Mach and others, embrace a notion mind/body identity and simply let go of any sort of theism. They would probably not like the language, but theirs was a thoroughly non-theist theology.

These ideas were developed further in the early 20th century in the Wiener Kreis (Vienna Circle) by Logical Positivists like Rudolph Carnap and Hans Reichenbach. Logical Positivism was strong in America, too, especially in our Midwest universities, and it was there that the philosophical foundations of American Humanism were laid by people like Roy Wood Sellars.

The idea seems to have been that there is no need for any sense of deity at all since all that exists is matter bouncing around in very complicated ways. Mind? Well, it’s just a brain process. Soul? No need for a soul. All of human action can, at least in principle be attributed to material processes. By the time of merger, Unitarian Universalists had embraced this Humanism enthusiastically.

By the time I entered seminary in 1976, though, Feminist philosophers and theologians like Carol Christ were raising an objection to this thinking. It pointed out that the Cogito is only half the story. They posited an embodied ontology, in which one might say that I have a body but I am not my body, and I have a mind, but I am not my mind. This embodied ontology required an embodied theology and it ushered in the return of the immanent God. But if God is immanent in all bodies, then must it not be the case that sacredness is found within the ordinary? Of course. And the notion of the Sacredness of the Ordinary was born.

The implications of this are huge. It means, for example, that the Great Men theory of history is no more than half right. There may be great men, but without ordinary people going about their business, great men would get nowhere. (Once again, Tolstoy was way ahead of his time.) What could Gandhi have accomplished if ordinary Indian women and men did not follow him? What could Martin Luther King, Jr. have been able to do without the courageous school kids who stood up to fire hoses and police dogs?

We are still working out the implications of this idea within Unitarian Universalism. I suggest that such innovations as Worship Associates, The Story for All Ages, and even our radical embrace of gender equality owe their prevalence to this thoroughly Feminist idea. Even the Ordinary is Sacred and must be treated with all the reverence that implies.

And that brings us to theism and spirituality. There are many ways of doing theology, and not all of them are theist in nature. But (and this is the important point) acceptance of the Sacredness of the Ordinary does require respect for a theological stance that you do not share. Why? Because if all are equally sacred, then the thinking of people with whom you do not agree is no less important and insightful than your own.

And what this means is that personal theology is much closer to autobiography than it is to prescription. Personal theology becomes a story, the story of a person’s religious journey. And how can one person’s story be any less important than another’s? How can my story even contradict your story?

Similarly, spiritual practice becomes the way we discover how and where that scared quality lives within us. I agree the Dōgen Eihei, the finder of the Soto school of Zen: “When you are ready, almost anything can bring Enlightenment.” Spiritual practice is about getting ready. And yet there are effective and ineffective ways of doing that. But given the Sacredness of the Ordinary, there is no One True Way of spiritual practice. What gets one person ready need not be what gets another ready. The power of this idea is that it has opened spiritual practice far beyond the limits that have been thought to circle it round about.

The Sacredness of the Ordinary is an amazing idea. We will be working out its implications for a long time to come. Indeed, given the nature of ideas, I rather doubt we will ever exhaust it. But I hope we never loose sight of it, for with it comes the realization that every person’s spiritual journey is a Hero’s Journey (hero in the sense of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces).

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